Thursday, March 10, 2016

Taking Sides

We've been living in the ago of TV anti-heroes for about a generation now.  Before then, you'd have flawed characters--think of a show like Hill Street Blues--but down deep they'd be decent and do the right thing.  But since The Sopranos (and a few other contemporaneous dramas) hit it big, anti-hero is the way to go.

The thing about such a show is you might not approve of the protagonist, but you followed things from his point of view, and, more often than not, were probably rooting for him.  Tony Soprano was a killer, but he had family problems and faced other killers worse than he was, so you'd generally want him to succeed.  Which is why, I think, David Chase kept making him worse and worse, to see how far the audience could go.

Then there's Breaking Bad, where we meet Walter White, master meth cook.  But the show starts by putting him in a corner.  He's got one kid with cerebral palsy and another on the way that he can't afford.  He works two jobs to make ends meet.  Then he finds he's got terminal lung cancer.  So he decides to apply his underused chemistry skills for fun and profit in the drug game.  We know it's wrong to manufacture and distribute meth, but it's hard not to be on Walt's side.  At first, anyway.  He keeps sinking lower and lower until, I think, most viewers finally turn against him.

Or then there's a guy like Don Draper of Mad Men.  Sure, he's not a killer like the guys above, but he's a bad husband, a bad father, not much of a human being.  He's charismatic and a genius in the ad game (when he bothers to show up), but it's hard to call him admirable.  Which is the point of the show--people can be pretty awful, because that's what people are like.

Anyway, the point of this long preface is that I see a new trend in the offing.  Right now I offer only two examples, and I think you need at least three, but perhaps there'll be another soon.  And that trend is the double-protagonist/antagonist anti-hero show.

I don't mean a show with two leads--that's common.  Or for that matter, numerous leads, like Game Of Thrones, some of whom are awful, some of whom are nice, most of whom are in the middle. (The first season may have seemed to be centered on Ned Stark, but fans were soon disabused of the notion that he was the protagonist.)  I mean two leads who oppose each other while the audience isn't sure who they're supposed to root for.

Exhibit A: Colony.  You've got Will (Josh Holloway of Lost) and Katie Bowman (Sarah Wayne Callies of Walking Dead), husband and wife.  They're both stuck living in a closed-off section of Los Angeles, now run by a provisional government set up by aliens (whom we never see) who have invaded Earth.  Will is caught trying to leave the colony to see their lost son, and can either lose everything or become a security officer for the government. He chooses the latter.  Meanwhile, his wife joins the rebellion, and uses the information her husband gives up, unwittingly, to help them.

I suppose in most stories the sympathetic character would be the one fighting the oppressive government, but the show doesn't give us enough information to know what's going on for sure.  The government might not be great, but can the rebellion offer anything better?  So while both Will and Katie are leads, their causes are in opposition (though they still love each other) and we don't know whom to root for.

Colony may be an imperfect example, since I think Holloway gets a little more screen time so I'm not sure if you could say they're equal leads.  Exhibit B, however, is exactly what I'm talking about.

And that's Billions.  It's about crusading U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) trying to take down Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), the hedge fund king. Or is it about Bobby Axelrod, high-flying financier who's got an ambitious prosecutor on his tail who wants to bring him down regardless of what the law says?  Both characters are leads, and both are antagonists (Damien Lewis was the male lead of his last Showtime drama, Homeland, but, for all the sympathy created for his character, there was no question he was a terrorist and CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) was the one we rooted for).

Both men are good at what they do, and regularly win their scenes against secondary characters, but they're also capable of being pretty awful.  They crush people who get in their way and don't care much about the wreckage.  They expect everything to go their way and are willing to sidestep the rules to make sure it does.

I'm not sure which one I like better on the show.  They're both allowed to make speeches explaining why what they're doing is right, but that's not how dramatic logic works.  We're drawn to the charismatic side, the exciting side, the fun side.  I guess Axelrod is a bit more fun (and I suspect the producers may be working harder to make him a good guy since super-rich people aren't naturally sympathetic), but really, I don't think either one is that great.  But maybe that's the point of the show.

In general, popular drama comes from giving the audience a clear rooting interest.  But if these shows are hits, we may see a lot more like them.

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